It’s hard to believe that Theresa May secured a draft Withdrawal Agreement from the European Union in November 2018. I feel as though I’ve aged 500 years since then. After weeks of parliamentary wrangling, countless amendments,a confidence vote and Sammy Wilson’s angry face on the television every night, the big day is here.
I’ve written elsewhere about my thoughts on the Agreement. I would reluctantly vote for the Prime Minister’s deal. It is lukewarm tea, a soggy biscuit trapped at the back of a cupboard. It inspires in me a feeling I associate with going to the dentist to get a painful filling. It is terrible, but there a few options left.
Yesterday Jean Claude Junker and Donald Tusk, with the air of a parent writing their child a note to get out of P.E, issued a letter with assurances on the Northern Ireland backstop. The letter was meant to placate Brexiteers and reach an arm out to the DUP. Both Junker and Tusk know full well that their words will have no effect. The Prime Minister, who surely knows what’s ahead of her, continues to talk up her deal like a soulless cheerleader. She’s become the political equivalent of a lonely drunk person in a club, sadly dancing to a remix of ‘Superstar’ when everyone else has gone home.
Today at around 7pm-9pm, the House of Commons will hold a meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement. It is not expected to get the approval of the House. According to Sky News, it’s estimated that that the government will lose by 225 votes. If so, it will be the biggest Commons defeat since Ramsay McDonald lost a parliamentary vote in 1924.
What happens if the government loses today? Because Parliament gets a say, Brexit is a ‘Choose your own Adventure’ horror show.
Under the European Union Withdrawal Act the Prime Minister will have to return to Parliament with a ‘plan B’ if her deal is rejected by Parliament. Thanks to the Speaker and Dominic Grieve she may have to do this within three days. The government could go back and try and get another deal. The EU has indicated that no other offer is on the table unless the government intends to change course and consider something like the EEA.
Labour could try and force a general election, presumably so Jeremy Corbyn can stand on a platform of not having a position on Brexit. This option involves procrastination on an international scale. Theresa May promised her MPs that she would not fight the next election. If she does step down another hollow-eyed Tory will take over. Neither party has a clear line on the way forward. MPs in both parties are split over Brexit. The winner of any general election will face the same issues, problems and road blocks.
Parliament may decide that the country should have a say and vote for a second referendum. Nobody knows what the question might be. Nobody has prepared for the outcome of a second vote. If it happens, we will all spend months yelling at each other. If we somehow vote to Remain the EU, the UK will slink back to EU like a shame faced teenager that has thrown a strop. If we vote to Leave, again, we return to the status quo and the question of what Brexit means. Whatever happens, public trust will be damaged.
All of this will depend on whether the European Union will grant us an extension of Article 50. There is no majority for No Deal in the Commons. There isn’t a majority for anything else either. The EU needs to approve any alternative arrangement. The only certainty is that we leave with No Deal on March 29th if we can’t agree on a way forward.
Brexit is amazing in its ability to consume everything but be completely detached from reality. The run up to today’s vote has made that even clearer. The meaningful vote is the culmination of two years’ worth of time wasting, terrible political decisions and hubris. We stand on the cusp of a historical decision that could define the country for a century and nobody has a clue.
In all this, Northern Ireland lies exposed to the political elements. We are somehow more divided than ever. The DUP intends to vote against the Withdrawal Agreement to save the union, not noticing that the ground is crumbling beneath them. Sinn Fein has decided ‘what the hell, we’ll do it live’ and sits quietly, waiting for the opportune moment to push for a border poll. We have no government and we face an uncertain future led by people who have no idea where they’re going.
Pour yourself a stiff drink. Find a place to hide, get comfy and brace.
Sarah is a writer and lawyer from Belfast.